Florida’s next class of elected leaders will confront changing attitudes about marijuana as a drug and recreational past time. Will they do so from a position of personal experience? Nikki Fried has the dankest website of any major candidate for statewide office in Florida.
Bumper stickers and T-shirts for the Democrat sell for $4.20. There is more cannabis green on the site than donkey blue. Among her top priorities for the Department of Agriculture, the state agency she hopes to lead? Expand medical marijuana and embrace industrial hemp.
It all might lead some voters to believe that Fried’s advocacy is accompanied by some firsthand knowledge. Asked if she has ever used marijuana, Fried wasn’t coy about it. “Of course I have,” the agriculture commissioner candidate and marijuana lobbyist told the Tampa Bay Times.
Marijuana use is on the rise in the United States. A federal drug survey released last month found half of American adults have tried marijuana once in their life, the high point of the last 20 years. As marijuana grows more ubiquitous, sentiments about the drug have shifted, too. More Americans than ever, 62 percent, believe marijuana should be legalized, according to Pew Research Center, a complete reversal from a decade ago. Florida’s next class of elected leaders will confront these changing attitudes. Will they do so from a position of personal experience?
The Times asked all candidates for statewide office if they have ever smoked marijuana, and if their experiences with the drug have influenced their views on marijuana policy.
Four of the 12 candidates acknowledged prior marijuana use, including the Democratic nominee for governor, Andrew Gillum. “Many years ago,” his spokeswoman Johanna Cervone said. Gillum has advocated for legalizing marijuana and taxing it. “Our policy on marijuana is informed by medical science and a reasonable approach to criminal justice,” Cervone said.
Five candidates said they have never smoked. Three wouldn’t respond, all Republicans: gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis, his running mate Jeanette Núñez and Ashley Moody, a candidate for attorney general. In a primary debate, DeSantis came out against legalization.
Fried’s Republican opponent in the race for agriculture commissioner, Rep. Matt Caldwell acknowledged past usage as well. “I have tried cannabis, however, it’s not for me,” said Caldwell, a co-sponsor of the 2014 bill that first allowed non-euphoric medical cannabis for select patients. Caldwell is skeptical of smokable marijuana for medical use.
Rep. Sean Shaw, the Democratic nominee for attorney general told the Times he has smoked too, but added: “It does not shape my views at all.”
Once a nonstarter for those seeking office, admission of prior marijuana use among politicians has shifted along with the country’s acceptance of the drug. Bill Clinton as a candidate for president in 1992 famously, if not clunkily, declared, “I didn’t inhale it.” By 2008, President Barack Obama’s nonchalant acknowledgement of smoking as a teen was a well-known anecdote in his biography.
“While it is no longer remarkable that candidates for elected office have smoked marijuana and will admit to it,” Fried said, “it bears noting that the over 126,000 legal, medical marijuana patients in Florida are prohibited from ‘smoking.’ ”
If there is a commonality among the small sample of candidates who admitted to marijuana use, it is age. Fried, Caldwell, Gillum and Shaw are all between 37 and 40 years old. Meanwhile, the two oldest candidates running in 2018, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, both said they didn’t smoke. Scott, 65, is challenging Nelson, 76, for his Senate seat.
This generational gap exists among the general population, too. While 58 percent of 35- to 39-year-olds said they have used marijuana in their lifetime, less than one-third of senior citizens have.
Yet, there has been a sudden surge of frequent marijuana use among those nearing retirement age over the last decade. Americans between 55 to 64 were once among the least regular marijuana users; now, baby boomers are as likely to have smoked in the last month as millennials. Researchers have at least partly attributed that spike to medical marijuana, now available in 31 states, including Florida.
Yet, two years after Sunshine State voters overwhelmingly gave the green light to medical cannabis here, the issue is far from settled. While none of the statewide candidates for office have advocated reversing course, some have said the state needs to do more.
Nelson said he has never smoked but said if a doctor believes that’s the best way to treat a patient, the state shouldn’t stand in the way. “I’m going on the evidence of the medical experts who have pointed out it’s a way of dealing with pain without getting the addiction that the other drugs would,” Nelson said.
With Scott as governor, Florida has blocked smokable marijuana. His reticence to embrace a more liberal drug policy comes from a personal experience of substance abuse in his family, spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said. “He knows firsthand what a heartbreaking burden it can be on impacted individuals and their loved ones,” Schenone said.
Of the Florida cabinet positions, only the race for chief financial officer featured two candidates who said they have never used marijuana. Both the incumbent Republican, Jimmy Patronis, and Democratic challenger, former state Sen. Jeremy Ring, responded by noting that they haven’t used other illegal drugs either.
However, it’s an office that oddly enough is likely to have some role in the future of marijuana regulation. Many of the marijuana businesses setting up shop here have trouble getting access to traditional banking. The federal government still considers marijuana an illegal drug and President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled it may crackdown on companies that do business with a nefarious industry.
Patronis said that concerns him, and Ring said he supports the state chartering a depository for these companies.
“While I don’t have any personal experience with marijuana, during my 10 years in the Florida Senate I often met with parents whose children suffered from any a number of chronic illnesses for which they believe marijuana is the most effective treatment,” Ring said. “Those experiences with parents — often times in tears — have stuck with me since.”